Yesterday I had another interesting adventure in beekeeping. The Eastern Missouri Beekeepers Association, EMBA, was having their annual Nuc (nuclear bee family) distribution day. The association trucks in honey bees (this year from Louisiana – the state, not the Missouri town where Stark Brothers Nursery is located!) so that local beekeepers can replace or add bees to their hives in the spring. I was told by others that this was an extraordinary experience, so when the call for volunteers went out, I signed up to help. We had to be on site at 5:00am in order to work most efficiently in the dark before the bees were overly alert and feisty, so this is when my alarm went off…just after 4am.
That is not horribly early for us since we are often awakened by the birds chirping and Farley stirring between five and five thirty in the morning but the anticipation of an unknown and possibly challenging task caused me to be sleepless and ready to get moving and so I popped out of bed promptly at four. Farley thought it was wonderful to be up early since it meant he got fed! Dave was sweet to get up and make some coffee so that I was fortified with Java. Off I went to a new experience.
Of course I wore my bee jacket and veil and arrived to find a bunch of other ‘alien equipped’ beekeepers ready for action. I was feeling a bit nervous so I was glad that one of the organizers asked if anyone was new to the experience and my hand shot up quickly. I was in good company since several others had not done this before but the difference in comfort level was obvious to note. We newbies were in our gloves, veils and basically suited for this from head to toe while the old hands could hardly bother to suit up and were handing the HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF BEES with great calm and nonchalance without even covering their faces until the light of day. As soon as the sun was up, the bees were a bit more awake and active.
Most of the regulars brought their bee smoker and these were puffing away to calm the bees as well. Each beekeeper seems to have a particular fuel and method for starting their smoker so it was interesting to observe. I plan to practice lighting my smoker today and will use the pine needles from our many pine trees as my fuel. Here is what a typical smoker looks like. The can is filled with the ‘fuel’ of choice and the bellows gives the container air, so that when you work the bellows, it puffs out smoke. I am told that a perfectly fueled can will last all day without refilling, but I’m not sure about that yet. So, the truck loaded with crates of bees pulled into the parking lot and it had a large, net-like tarp covering box after box of bees that had been transported on the highway all the previous day. The bees were not contained other than the ‘tarp’ and so once the tarp was pulled back, one could see thousands and thousands of bees on the exterior of the boxes trying to hang on. This is when those in charge started to bark the orders so that we could work quickly and efficiently to unload the bees and get ready for the distribution. I swallowed hard and made the decision that I could do this but as soon as the tarp came off, the bees were as thick around us as rain and I can say it was much different than my previous experience with the hives at the farm! As I told someone later, I was calm on the outside but rather stressed out on the inside. Luckily, the darkness and the crazy outfit I was wearing helped to not betray any of my anxiety during the moment.
As the tarp was slowly pulled back to reveal the crates of bees, my co-workers all came forward with their smokers to calm the bees and try to encourage them to get back into their crates. They unloaded pallet after pallet of bees with a skid loader and after each box was relatively free of clinging bees, we used a hive tool to insert a piece of metal screening into the opening in order to keep the bees inside which was helpful as we unloaded the boxes from the pallets to the pavement. This, however, only meant that there were slightly fewer bees looking for a place to settle. I was a bit hesitant to jump into the melee of all of this but I witnessed the calm of all the others who were covered with bees and figured I could do this too. The key is not to panic and to move in slow motion and never, never, never swat. It is kind of like snorkeling…easy breaths are best but a panicked gulp just ruins the wonder of the moment! I was very proud that my only real moment of panic occurred when I was carrying one of the boxes of bees and felt a sting on the palm of my hand. I guess I had picked up a box and a bee got between me and the bottom and it was unpleasant for both of us! I did ask a neighboring volunteer if he could take the box from my hand for a moment so I could get the stinger out of my leather glove! He obliged and I took the box back and continued working as it was expected. The glove did a good job of keeping the sting to a minimum and this was my only sting of the day.
It was beautiful as the dawn arrived and we had the tractor trailer entirely unloaded and started to distribute the bee boxes to those who had purchased them and had started to arrive for their pick up. I had transformed quickly from a novice to an “old pro” as I started helping to carry the nucs to the waiting customers’ cars. I had one hilarious experience with another novice who was at least 5 times more nervous than I but who needed help to his car with his newly purchased bees. His brand new bee suit was too big and the veil dropped down over his eyes as we carried his boxes to his waiting mini-van. Here he was, blindly walking towards his car with about 4,000 bees in his shaking hands as he looked to me to tell him how to proceed! Of course, after only two hours of bee-ing entirely covered with bees (they were cold and our bodies were emitting warmth, therefore we were attracting them) it was easy to help guide this fellow on his way. Of course, I can only imagine how his drive home went with a van full of bees!
So this was my morning experience with the bees. The hardest part was figuring out how to get into my car to go home since I was covered with hugging bees but didn’t want to ride home with them. I asked another bee volunteer to brush me off (which is all it takes to get a bee to un-glue from your clothes) and I got into my car feeling relatively accomplished until the car warmed up and I found that there were indeed spare bees with me flying around. Thankfully, I used my new experience to be calm and the bees flew off out an opened window. After arriving home, I realized that the adrenaline from the morning’s experience had taken its toll and even tho I had not overly exerted myself, I was dramatically tired by it all. It was a nice tired tho and I hope to put the entire experience to good use in the future. By the way, the sting on the palm of my hand is insignificant, but we take precautions when mowing the grass right next to the bees. Here is Dave suited up while mowing recently. So far, so good.